Life with a Series 0 Watch, Older Tech, and COVID-19

I have mentioned this before, but I am a huge fan of Patrick Rhone’s enough, and Minimal Mac. Patrick is probably the closest I have to a minimalist sensei.

Patrick still uses his older 11” MacBook Air as his daily driver. Back in 2014 he wrote an excellent post: Not for Me. The thesis was that he decided the products Apple released are not worth reaching for his wallet, and his existing tech still worked for him.

I still use my Apple Watch Series 0. It’s five years old, and every year I think the newer Apple Watches will finally get me to reach for my wallet. This year, like other years, I decided my Series 0 is still, well, enough for me. It’s not that I think the new Watches suck. It’s that they don’t solve $400 worth of problems for me. The only thing that makes me think of getting a new watch is the EKG sensors.

Likewise, my iPad is a 2015 12.9” iPad Pro. The battery on it is kind of shot and doesn’t yet register under 80% health for a cheap battery replacement. This is probably the longest I have kept an iPad. My iPhone 8+ still trucks along just fine and I don’t see a burning need to replace it as well.

In 2016, I bought a new 15” MacBook Pro. This device is the likely upgrade candidate with the new M1 Macs. There are times I feel like I am pushing the power constraints on it, and, yeah, that damn keyboard. When balancing out power vs portability, my old 2014 11” MacBook Air still wins some usability battles1. This makes me think that maybe I will get a 4-port, 13” Pro when they come out.

I have a strong aversion to getting rid of tech that still satisfies a use case. The likely catalyst to buying a new iPad will be when a new version of iOS stops supporting my iPad. My relationship with my tech is dichotomous: I want to use the best tool for the job; but I also Quixotically continue to bang away at a One Device to Rule Them All2 mentality. Even with my 11” Air and my daily driver 15” Pro, maintaining both computers has a mental overhead. If I don’t use my Air for a bit, the first use is a miasma of app updates and iCloud syncing. As Matt Gemmell said, devices have “a weight that’s not from its mass.” The ascetic lifestyle of iPad-only lifestyle appeals to me, but these days so much of my social interactions are online games and weekly Skype gaming sessions with my friends, the monastic lifestyle of only having an iPad would be unpleasant. When I periodically purge my space of cruft that builds up, the stereotypical empty room with just a desk and a laptop appeals to me. This tends to be an overreaction for when I realize I have 3 computers going, with two games running as a switch between them like a dog chasing a flock of squirrels.

We don’t live in a non-COVID world, as much as some people would like to pretend we don’t. I don’t really leave the house these days. Gone are the days of working for a few hours in a coffee shop. I made an appearance in the office thrice since March. Mobile these days means I might go down to the family room, or the patio, and do some work. Since the big issue with my iPad is battery life, and I am rarely away from a power outlet, resolving that issue isn’t a high priority.

This current-state isn’t going away any time soon. When I look ahead to 2021, every instance I think of where I’d need a more mobile solution isn’t going to happen. My big gaming convention I spend 4 days in a hotel geeking out? They already announced it will be virtual next year. I love going into Boston for the day, wandering around and getting some good food. The idea of getting onto public transportation and doing all that seems so foreign to me.

  1. There exists a scenario where I upgrade the 256gb SSD in the 11” to a larger drive.
  2. The scales continue to shift to the Mac. Instapaper now has a version that runs on even Intel-based Macs.

On Apple’s Earning Adjustment and Upgrade Cycles

Apple today announced expected revenue for the holiday quarter would fall short of expectations. They didn’t miss by much, only by about $5-7 billion1. Tim Cook blamed a lot of things: China’s slow growth, longer upgrade cycles due to the elimination of cellular subsidies, and that people paying $29 to replace old batteries allowed them to keep their iPhones longer2.

What he didn’t mention was Apple raised the prices on everything over the last few years.

Now, some of the complaining about prices wasn’t justified. The new MacBook Air starts at $1,199, up $200 from the old-model’s $999 price tag. That old Air, however, was outdated. No Retina screen. Old internals. It did have MagSafe and USB-A ports, so for a lot of people it was still worth it.

The price increase on a lot of other items, yeah. I bought my 2016 15” MacBook Pro in March 2017. It replaced as my main Mac a 2011 15” MacBook Pro, and an 11” MacBook Air I bought in early 2015 right before Apple released new upgrades. The 2011 I farmed off to a co-worker; the 11” I still have3. While performance was a driver for the upgrade, a large part of it was getting a Retina screen. The 12.9” iPad Pro really made the older screens hard for me to use. I sometimes wonder if I got a 2014 13” Pro instead if it would still be my main Mac. The dual core processor would likely show its age by now. I still use the Air though, when I need MacOS and an ultra-portable computer.

My theme for 2019 Evaluation. For the record, I’m not looking at making major life changes. I am, however, evaluating the devices, apps, and services I use. For now, it’s a lot of data collection. What do I use my Mac and iPad for? I say I want to use x app more, but over the year I use y app instead. I promised myself it was unlikely I was going to upgrade any of my devices. Some of this is price. The increased price of the new iPad Pro may not have completely turned me away, but also needing to buy a new Smart Keyboard and Pencil (also at a roughly 20% price premium) surely did. The same with my iPhone. I used my 6 for three years, and I expect to get 4-5 out of my 8 Plus. New iPhones are more expensive and my existing one works just fine. For me to upgrade I need to see real-world improvement; not just benchmarked improvement.

As Patrick Rhone would say, a lot of people are finding out their current phones and devices are enough.

  1. Since this is the internet, I feel I need to mention I am being sarcastic.
  2. I am not making that one up.
  3. It’s on my desk next to me, actually.

.plan Files and Tracking & Thinking About Personal Goals

For working on some of my personal projects that have longer timelines than “install this tool on my Mac”, I’ve been struggling with how to track and report on progress. Things, which I love, isn’t good for these. These efforts aren’t really something that can be broken down to task levels. A good example is learning about security tools. I have a task in Things to remind me to install a tool on my Air. But tracking progress, notes, and high-level tasks I need something else. The same for working on coming up with a side-hustle and secondary revenue streams.

I was thinking of how John Carmack of id software used to maintain .plan files. It used the finger protocol as a type of blogging engine, but I liked the simple, text-based structure. As I was thinking about tracking some of my personal stuff, I debated between a separate Ulysses sheet, or using Apple Notes, or just Day One Journaling. I ruled against these because I don’t want it to be in my face. I didn’t want a constant reminder that I hadn’t gotten to those projects because work, school, and life got in the way. I also want to keep it private. I did want the ability to edit the file on Mac or iOS, so that sort of limited the app I would use.

So, I decided on keeping a sort of .plan file in Byword. It’s a simple text file. It’s out of the way since it’s not an app I use a lot. It’s just one file now named “plan” and I will be keeping some notes and goals over time there. Maybe it’s close to bullet journal, but I just wanted a separate way to track a lot of this.

iPad Life: A Post-iPad-Only Life and Rendering Unto Caesar

I have largely abandoned the idea that I can go iPad-only. While I never actually thought it would work for me, and admire people like Matt Gemmell who can, I have come to the grudging realization I cannot join their ranks.

In the parlance of many failed relationships, it’s not the iPad; it is me.

When the focus of my non-day job stuff was writing and drawing, the iPad was perfect for that. Even architectural drawings, while I can’t do full AutoCAD on the iPad, I could still draw buildings and have some fun with that. Schoolwork was a little more challenging where I’d run into some limitations with Word, I could still get around them on the iPad. It was when my career path diverted into information security the wheels fell off the iPad bus. There are some discovery and recon tasks I can do on the iPad, but the tools I use require access to the Unix parts of macOS I don’t ever expect iOS to allow.

I wrote earlier about how I carry too much crap with me and did some data analysis on how I use my mobile devices. While the numbers clearly point towards the iPad as my primary mobile device, they don’t tell all the story. There is a line from the Bible I like which is Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s… and a variation of this applies here. While I cannot go iPad-only, the iPad is still pretty much my primary mobile device. Unless I really need a program only available on the Mac, I only bring my iPad with me. I’m writing this post now at lunch at work on my iPad. I bring the iPad to to take notes, read materials, write, and draw. The reasons I outlined in A Year of Using the iPad as a Laptop Replacement for using the iPad as my primary mobile device still apply. But, I felt like my quest to either go Mac-only or iPad-only were causing me to focus on the negatives of each system, rather than the positives. By accepting I need each device in my life freed up a lot of mental energy. I love writing and drawing on my iPad. I love using Unix tools on my MacBook Pro. If that means I leave the house with both of them in my bag some days, well, so be it.

The “I Carry Too Much Crap” Edition

From Ben Brooks:

My rule here is very simple: take a phone and one other device. Unless you have a major reason why you need three devices, take only two. For me the second device is my iPad Pro, and before that it was my MacBook. If you need a Mac, take a Mac and use your phone for anything else. But decide if you even need that second device — I take mine strictly because if I can squeeze in writing time, it is worth having the iPad Pro. But I could do it all with my iPhone if I wanted

I’ve been in a weird state where I’m straddling a few tech lines and as a result I’m leaving the house frequently with both my iPad Pro and my MacBook Pro. The short version of a long story is I can’t really go iPad-only, but, I also can’t really go MacBook-only at the same time. My primary, non-day job, yet productive, tasks are: writing, drawing, photo editing, and security analysis. I’m oversimplifying here, but the iPad is best at drawing and the MacBook is the only platform I can do security analysis with. The other tasks I can do close to equally as well on either platform.

Ben’s post helped illustrate a growing frustration I have with my daily load-out: I routinely leave the house with my iPhone, MacBook Pro, and iPad Pro. That is one device too many. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I need a powerful Mac, an iPad Pro, and an iPhone as part of my technological setup. What I struggle with is why I feel I need to bring both the iPad and MacBook Pro with me. Core apps I use (Ulysses, OmniGraffle, Affinity Photo) are reasonably feature complete between iOS and macOS1. The iPad-only apps are Procreate for drawing, and the macOS-only apps are my security toolsets.

The practical answer is to just go back to a MacBook Pro. It’s a more flexible platform and the walls I hit are fewer than on iOS. Drawing is the least-performed of my activities. Even today I ran into a weird iOS limitation. I needed to export a multiple-canvas Omnigraffle document to png files. On the Mac, there is a checkbox to export the entire document. On the iPad, no such checkbox exists. [UPDATE: I have since learned there is a workaround] Practicality is not the only driver, though. I really like using the iPad Pro. Typing on the Smart Keyboard is a dream and I love the portability of the device. As with creative work, security work when away from my home is also a rarity.

Since I can’t decide, and impulse and emotions aren’t good points to base decisions on, I’m falling back on my analyst mindset. I created a spreadsheet where I will record on a high-level my device usage. Three columns: Date, iPad, MacBook. The value will be Date (obviously) and for each device row I am using a 4-point grade: 0, did not use the device; 1, used the device lightly; 2, used the device heavily; 3, did something I can only perform on that device. As an aside, this is only for when I leave the house. I don’t care too much right now about my day-to-day usage at home. I will also take care and not cheat the data. If I brought my MacBook, have it on the desk, and the thing I want to do can be done on either the Mac or iPad, unless necessary I won’t drag out the iPad just to give it a checkbox for the day.

  1. There are edge cases on things like some filters for Affinity Photo, but for the purpose of this article we can call them feature-compatible and not get too far down in the weeds.

Sacred Places of Work

I wanted to move game playing out of my home office and transform the area into a space where I would just focus on work stuff. Paint my miniatures, write, draw, work on my trains, or learn to program. Have something to show for my time. So, I bought a PS4, put it in the family room, and moved the Alienware off my desk. All that remained was the iPad, MacBook Pro, and a sacred place of work.

My home office is amazing. We had it painted recently, there isn’t much in the way of decorations. I look out at 57 acres of woods, and several times a week see the local wildlife in the back yard. I have two work surfaces: a large desk that is the 3rd generation in my family; and an IKEA dining table that I use for painting my miniatures and working on my trains. On the desk is my MacBook Pro, the 27” monitor hooked up to my Alienware Alpha, and the related chargers and cables.

The first paragraph was written earlier this year. The second one a week or so ago. An astute reader will notice in the first paragraph the Alienware was off the desk, and in the second paragraph it came back. The problem with bad habits left unchecked they come back like weeds. The painting happened in early June. The Alienware was put away when I got the PS4 in December 2016. By September, it had crept back on my desk like a pile of kudzu. I’m looking at the 27”monitor right now and thinking: that right there is a big bucket of fail. The foundation of bad habits is lies and false promises you make to yourself. I just put that there to have the game on. I want a big screen to watch the drawing tutorials on. It’s out of the way and you hardly notice it.

I used to follow the Minimalists a lot (my full feelings on them is a future article), but one of their mantras is if you lead a distraction-free lifestyle free of things like video games, the TV, the internet, and cell phones you will miraculously find yourself an amazingly productive person.

Bullshit. Hard work may pay off tomorrow, but procrastination pays off today. If I feel like writing and drawing, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. The beauty of personal side projects is there are no deadlines. The curse of side projects is there are no deadlines.

Instead of Minimalism, I instead try and follow simplifying and the essentials. Minimalism feels like paring down too far. A minimalist may have only one Lightning charger, but I have five: one at my desk, one by my bed, one in my car, one at my desk, and in my bag is a set of MacBook and Lightning chargers. It’s not minimal, but it is simpler. Everywhere I need a charger there is one. Because it really sucks when you run out of juice someplace and realize you left the charger the last place you were at.

Likewise, my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook are essential. The Alienware and the 27” monitor are not and will be removed. The rest of the desk will be clean, simple, and essential.

The Mac

Lost in all this shuffle over me going iPad-primary is that I still love the Mac. There is a lot of dogma and rigidness from the iPad-only crowd regarding the Mac and I don’t share it. Steve Jobs famously said that (paraphrasing) that PCs are trucks and iOS devices are cars.

I still drive a truck. Both a physical version and electronic.

My 11″ MacBook Air doesn’t get used on a daily basis anymore, but it’s still one of my favorite devices of all time. There was a brief period of time recently where I regretted getting it and not a MacBook Pro 13″. I missed it because I really couldn’t play games on it, but I realized that playing games on my Mac didn’t add much value to my life. After that epiphany I felt much more comfortable about the purchase. I do wish it had a retina screen, so when it comes time to upgrade it I will likely get the baseline MacBook 12″

There are some things I do that I either flat out can’t do on iOS (like de-DRM my Kindle collection for archiving) or are a gigantic pain in the ass on iOS (like copying a ton of PDFs from iCloud to OneDrive. Plus there is iOS development which I want to I get into.1

iOS still has enough roadblocks for it to replace my MacBook completely. I expect I will still need some form of Mac for the next three years, at least.

When I upgrade my beloved Air at some point, I’m not a traitor to the iOS-primary cause, but simply a realist who believes in the right tool for the job.

  1. My gut feeling is by WWDC 2018 some type of native development environment for iOS apps will be available on iOS.

Apple and organizational change

There’s one thing about Apple that has been in the back of my mind since WWDC: Apple has done a fantastic job at organizational change in the last year or so. Every organization I’ve worked at has handled change poorly. Either people refuse to accept the change, or the leaders don’t change enough, or, sometimes they change too much.

It’s pretty much a given: Large organizations handle large changes poorly. Look at Blackberry and Microsoft. Both of these companies saw their markets were being disrupted, but still did a piss-poor job at reacting to it.

Apple, on the other hand, is a market leader and on the outside had little need to change how they did things. Yet they did, in some key ways.

Opening up the betas

Up until earlier this year, it was laughable that Apple would ever open up the OS X betas. Yet, starting with a dot release for Mavericks they opened up the betas. Even now, there is a public beta for their new OS, Yosemite. Hopefully, this will clear up some issues like the whole Gmail Mavericks issue.

That said, I don’t think Apple will open up the iOS betas. There are too many risks for key systems. Apple had enough problems with a small subset of users having problems with a failed 8.0.1 update. Imagine if a bad beta got out for an OS Apple isn’t actively supporting.

Opening up iOS

I don’t’ know if iOS 8 extensions and keyboards would have happened if Jobs and Forestall were still with Apple. Part of me can see it happening if Jobs were still alive (he did accept that sometimes Apple needed to change). If Forestall still stayed on after Jobs died, I doubt it.

At WWDC, it was announced that now 3rd party keyboards would be available for iOS, and now apps can talk to each other in a more logical manner without the need for some crazy workarounds.

Gizmodo is off the shit list

Gizmodo got an invite to the September 9 event. This is the same organization that got their hands on a stolen iPhone and told Jobs to shove it. I thought the odds were better I would get an invite to an Apple event before Gizmodo would. Lo and behold, both Gizmodo and Brian Lam got invites. Even with Jobs and Cotton gone, I thought someone at Apple would have a long enough memory to still stick it to them.

Final thoughts

I look at some of the changes other organizations have tried to make and seen how they have failed first hand. That so far, this hasn’t blown up in Apple’s face is remarkable. So far, a few bugs in iOS have given them egg on their face.

Egg is far easier to clean up than shit, though.

Apple does the unexpected; opens OS X betas to everyone

I will admit, I did not see this one coming. Apple announced on April 22, 2014 that they are now allowing anyone with an Apple ID, and is 18 years of older, to participate in their beta program. Previously, this required an Apple Developer Account ($99/year). Now, it’s free, as in beer.

I think this is a great idea. Personally, I’ve been in the iOS and OS X developer programs solely for research. As a freelancer specializing in Apple products, I needed to be comfortable with the new OSs before launch to write about the new features. Now, at least, I don’t have to worry about the OS X program.

When I reached out to Apple PR about their motives, they declined to comment. My uneducated guess is that Apple needed more feedback on beta releases than they were getting from the developer pool. I know that the betas leading up to a GM get a lot of testing from developers, but I don’t know about the dot relases. This could also be a general security issue since betas for the new versions of OS X usually hit the torrent sites. That’s not a good way for people to get their hands on operating systems.

How it works is pretty straightforward. You sign up and download a DMG file which has a MavericksBetaAccessUtility.pkg file in it. Installing this allows he prerelease iTunes 11.1.6 and OS X 10.9.3 betas to be downloaded from the Mac App Store. What is not explicitly stated is whether this will still be in place when the beta for OS X 10.10 starts this summer. There is an FAQ here, but it’s a little vague on how forthcoming betas will be handled. I think that 10.10 will be included. At least, I hope it is. A concern, however, is that the DMG and the PKG file say “Mavericks” and not “OS X”. So, it’s possible this is only for Mavericks. We will see in two months.

My next question is whether this will be available on iOS. I am split on this, and the 51% of me thinks it will not be. OS X has a much smaller install base than iOS. It’s also easier to recover your Mac from a bad beta than your iPhone. Also, you download the files for iOS betas from the developer page; not the iOS App Store.[1] Were Apple to introduce free iOS betas, they would include it in the free developer accounts. You’d have to pay to use iTunes Connect. This would also eliminate the selling of device provisions that generally drive Apple nuts.


  1. Technically, you also do this for the OS X betas, but once you’ve entered in a reclamation code, the beta software appears in the App Store.  ↩

Hands-on: Scrivener 2.0

The iPad forced Scrivener, a great Mac writing app, out of my workflow. I’ve been using various writing tools for the iPad pretty much exclusively, and there wasn’t a need for Scrivener in the process. Now, new features introduced in version 2.0 have earned Scrivener its place back.

Big Feature Number 1: Sync with External Folder

This feature alone was worth the $25 upgrade fee. As you’d expect, it lets you, well, sync with an external folder. The intent here is for you to use a service like Dropbox as your sync folder, although you don’t have to. When you sync a Scrivener project it creates subfolders with the bits that make up a project — a Scrivener project isn’t a single file like a Word (s msft) document; instead it’s a package made up of  files — be it text files as part of the manuscript, or images or PDFs for your research.

When you set this project to sync, it’ll create subfolders for all those nested bits, and you can edit them on any computer that has access to that folder and can edit the text files. This is a fantastic feature for use with iPad editing tools. I’ll export all my current projects to Dropbox. When I edit the project on the iPad, it’ll auto-sync when I open the project up in Scrivener. Also, text files created in the sync folder will auto import. All my TAB stuff goes into one project, so if I create a new article on the iPad, it’ll get imported. This feature is also very handy if you’re collaborating on a project with another Scrivener user.

Big Feature Number 2: Create E-books

Creating an e-book from your work has been somewhat challenging up until now. Open-source tools like Sigil can create e-books, but my experiences with it showed me it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s probably not something the average writer is likely to want to deal with. When Apple recently introduced ePub exporting in Pages, I felt it was the first e-book creation tool average users can work with. Now, Scrivener can create both ePub and Mobi-formatted books.

I haven’t played with this feature much other than to export a project and view it on my iPad and Stanza (s amzn) in OS X, but, it worked, and looked quite good. I did notice the iPad was a little more font-sensitive than Stanza (it didn’t see all the font overrides I set in Scrivener). Using the supplied novel template I also noticed that the table of contents were auto created.

I haven’t tried to send a compiled e-book off to one of the self-publishing services, so I have no idea how well that aspect works.

Not-so-big Features

Better Academic Usage

My experiences using Scrivener for academic work were frustrating. While it was great at storing research, getting Scrivener to bend to MLA formatting just wasn’t worth the hassle. Now, Scrivener includes templates for MLA and other academic standards. There are also now presets for things like block quoting that really help alleviate some of the frustration of formatting.

Also greatly improved is footnoting. Footnotes (and comments) now appear in the Inspector rather than in-line. The combination of these two improvements makes Scrivener a more appealing tool for student use.

Better Outlining

Most of my work doesn’t involve outlining. That said, there are some impressive new additions to outlining in Scrivener. The biggest one for me is custom columns. I live or die by word counts, and now the outline view can show the word count for all my drafts. I can also add columns for progress to a target word count, modified date, etc. This is especially handy for files like my TAB binder, which can become very congested.

Collections

This is going to be the feature I’m glad was included later, even though I don’t currently use it. Basically, collections let you grab scrivenings without changing their place in the overall structure. If you’re working on a large manuscript and you’ve identified scrivenings that are to be the focus of the day’s editing, you can drag those into a collection and not screw up their position. I haven’t figured if there’s a way to create a smart collection based on keywords. I can easily see using this as a to-do list.

Conclusion

Scrivener 2.0 was one of my most-anticipated upgrades this year. It hasn’t disappointed me. The folder sync feature is a boon to us iPad users and lets me use Scrivener as the Grand Central Terminal for my writing. The upgrade is $25 and the full version is $45. It’s a tremendous bargain for such an awesome writing tool.